Wednesday 27 August 2014

The British Museum and the Bible

I recently visited the British museum and what a rich historical resource this place is! For Christians and lovers of the Bible, this would make an inspirational visit for anyone. It is probably best to be informed before a visit and there is a good book available published by Day One Publications called: "Through the British Museum with the Bible Third edition (Day One Travel Guide)". This would provide helpful information ahead of a visit.

Here are three things that I found stimulating on my recent visit.

1. To look at Greek and Roman seal stones. These were used as a form of identification and ownership and Paul the apostle picks up this New Testament time imagery and applies it to the gospel. 2 Corinthians 1:21-22: "And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee". Also look at Ephesians 1:13, 4:30; Romans 4:11, 1 Cor. 9:2; 2 Tim. 2;19 and also in the ministry of the Lord Jesus, John 3:33 and 6:27.

2. A golden crown/wreath was on display in the Greek historical section. These were used in the Graeco-Roman world in sporting events and in religious ceremonies. Presumably as a mark of honour. The theme of being given an eternal crown that does not perish is to be preferred. Of course many crowns were made of plant material and rarely perhaps of gold. The golden one is in the museum because it has survived 2000 years unlike plant-material crowns. Hear Paul takes up this crown/wreath imagery in 2 Timothy 4:8: "Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing".

3. In one section of the museum, I came across the "Cyrus Cylinder". This clay cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king (this is copied from the British museum website at:

For those lovers of the Bible, you will know that king Cyrus is spoken of in the Book of Daniel in the Bible. All historical and archeological finds always confirm the truth and integrity of the Bible to be the very reliable word of God. Daniel 1:21 "And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus".

For those people reading this blog who may not be Christians or who may not be familiar to the Bible, let me encourage you to visit the British museum. However, I urge you also to accept that the Bible is unique among any literature among humanity. It is a book which cannot be categorised because it is the revelation of the One True God. The author of the Bible is God Himself, who inspired men across centuries to teach us the way of salvation. This is how Jesus Christ described the teaching of the Old Testament writings: John 10:35 "And Scripture cannot be broken".

Saturday 23 August 2014

Our response to teaching on the Ten Commandments reveals our biblical and reformed orthodoxy

This last week at our midweek meeting at Sheffield Presbyterian Church, we looked at some of the Ten Commandments. We did so by looking at the Westminster Shorter Catechism. We studied the seventh to the tenth of the commandments. It was a joy to hear people's comments, questions and their delight at the discussion of such a topic. This sparked off in my mind how that teaching on the Ten Commandments is a good tester of biblical and reformed orthodoxy.

The Law of God summarised in the Ten Commandments has so many blessings and benefits for the church, when it is rightly understood. For those who rightly understand the law of God, there is a realisation that the Decalogue reveals our sin which is always needed and this provides a spiritually healthy antidote to sin. The law restrains us in our propensity to hypocrisy, sin, latent darkness and unrighteousness. The law reveals God's attributes and of course Jesus Christ who perfectly fulfilled the law in our place and the Lord expects us to use the law as our code of living in this sinful world. God's love is revealed in the law of God and much more.

How we then respond to the law of God, often reveals much. How do you respond to teaching on the law of God? Is it a "yes, but ..." which leads to a seeking to minimise the law's demands? Is it a "yes, but ..." which then falsely asserts that the law is not needed in the church? Instead, a biblical response is found by the author of Psalm 119 and Paul the apostle in the Book of Romans. How do these men respond to the revelation of God's holy law?

Psalm 119:77 "Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight".
Psalm 119:97 "Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day".
Romans 7:22 "For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being".

These verses express what should be the response of the mature, righteous and godly man or woman. How do you respond? If there is a genuine lack of delight in God's Ten Commandments, why not pray about this and ask the Lord for help? Maybe you have wrongly understood the Lord's teaching on the law, maybe you have adopted some teaching on the law of God which gives you what your natural desire is, which is to be free from God's law. And yet, such an attitude is an unbiblical position. Let us walk humbly to follow the Lord, knowing that it is by grace that we follow the Lord, but His grace points out the law of God to us, to be a light for our path and a guide for our feet.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Recovering the Ten Commandments in the Church Today

Historical theology is a key subject for the church. Solomon warned us in Ecclesiastes 1:9 that "there is nothing new under the sun". Through almost 2000 years, there have been three things which the church has used in the West, to pass on the content of the faith to each succeeding generation. Do you know what they are? It has been teaching on the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. It is important that teaching on these basic elements of the Christian faith are taught today in the church.

The reformed documents and confessions of faith sought to teach these three things, but they filled them with biblical content, in contradiction to the false teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Apostles' Creed provides the basic structure for Calvin's Institutes and the Westminster Confession. The Westminster catechisms essentially expound the core doctrines of the Apostles' Creed, followed by a thorough exposition of the Ten Commandments and then prayer based on the Lord's Prayer.

Someone once remarked to me that we will either recover of dismantle the reformed and biblical heritage. When the church hides, neglects of falsely teaches that the Ten Commandments has no binding significance on the church or is not needed, then that church has fallen into doctrinal decline. Romans 6:17 explains that there is content to the faith to be passed on to every succeeding generation: "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed". The word teaching is the Greek word "didachē" implying the content of the Christian faith.

The biblical standard of teaching has always required a correct understanding of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) and it is amazing how this provides shape to the church, to our personal faith and our approach to the subject of worship. The connection between a church's understanding of what is worship changes when the law of God is understood. It is no longer simp lying a personal experience but it takes on a God-centred approach with guardrails to protect us from our sinful tendencies, which constantly desire to introduce new but sometimes unhelpful practices into public worship.

To be reformed is to truly know, understand and agree with Paul in Romans 7:22 "For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being". Can you say that with joy? Do you understand what Paul is saying here in Romans 7:22. If not, then why not pray that the Lord would you and the church where you are a member the right understanding concerning God's holy law. Psalm 119:18 is a great prayer: "Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law".

Wednesday 6 August 2014

The place of the moral law in the church needs to be urgently revisited by the church!

It is hard to know where to begin on this subject. When we consider the implications upon the church when the moral law is downplayed, rejected, or considered to be overtaken by the law of love, so that Christians decide themselves as to what is right and wrong and so forth, the scope of unhelpful influences that ensue are huge.

Jesus said that: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" Matthew 5:17-19.

However, despite this warning against relaxing the commandments of God, it is not uncommon for some Christian teachers today to reject the moral law and the Ten Commandments for the church outright. Some say this apparently due to their fear of producing legalism. However, there is a problem with this argument. Legalism is adding to the commandments of Scripture and this idea to do away with the Ten Commandments, actually removes the obligation upon Christians to obey the Ten Commandments as a rule of life.

My little blog posts are not going to resolve this crisis, but I hope to get some people thinking. There is one group of people though that I would like to squarely challenge. These are those Christians and churches who claim to be reformed while also rejecting the moral law as having ongoing obligation for the church. And do you know what I have observed? The first step to the weakening of the foundations of the moral law for the church is often the downplaying of the fourth commandment and the Christian Sabbath.

One of the unfortunate fruits of this theology has been the cancelling of the evening service for church worship. I truly believe that if you are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, then you will not be trying to reduce your opportunities for worshipping the Triune God, for fellowship with the faithful, and to sit under sound preaching. But this active reduction in weekly church attendance has become all too common, while most people in the West have more time on their hands than ever. People have more spare time, more leisure time and holiday time than ever, and yet there is a strong emphasis in some quarters to make church attendance simply a matter of a gracious choice and not a biblical duty.

More will need to be said on this subject, but for the serious minded who would like a book to read on this subject, I would like to recommend one by Philip S. Ross, called "From the Finger of God".

Friday 1 August 2014

Sanctification and the Heidelberg Catechism (Part Two)

Sanctification and the Heidelberg Catechism, Part Two

2. Does the third-use of the law play a significant role in the Christian life?

The HC gives serious and careful attention to the requirements of God's law as a guide for the Christian life (Q. 92-113). This section does not teach sinners how to live in order to be saved, as if salvation could be earned by works of the law. Rather, it teaches those who are already saved through faith in Christ how to "behave towards God" and "what duties we owe to our neighbor" (Q. 93). 

God's law not only restrains, exposes, and condemns sin, it also instructs those who are united to Christ how to love, honor, please, and obey God--how to live as faithful citizens of Christ's kingdom. The HC explains that good works are "only those which proceed from a true faith" and are "performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men" (Q. 91). The law, therefore, serves to give God's children wisdom and direction for Christian living. We do not set the rules or make them up as we go. 

Ursinus states in his commentary on the HC that while the chief efficient cause of conversion is "the Holy Spirit, or God himself," the "means or instrumental cause of conversion [which includes sanctification in his use of "conversion"] are the law ... the gospel, and again, the doctrine of the law after that of the gospel." He goes on to explain that 
The preaching of the law goes before, preparing and leading us to a knowledge of the gospel: "for by the law is the knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20) Hence, there can be no sorrow for sin without the law. After the sinner has once been led to a knowledge of sin, then the preaching of the gospel follows, encouraging contrite hearts by the assurance of the mercy of God through Christ. Without the preaching there is no faith, and without faith there is no love to God, and hence no conversion to him. After the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of the law again follows, that it may be the rule of our thankfulness and of our life. The law, therefore, precedes, and follows conversion. It precedes that it may lead to a knowledge and sorrow for sin: it follows that it may serve as a rule of life to the converted.  It is for this reason that the prophets first charge sin upon the ungodly, threaten punishment, and exhort to repentance; then comfort and promise pardon and forgiveness; and lastly, again exhort and prescribe the duties of piety and godliness (Ursinus, Commentary, 472-- emphasis mine).

This "third-use" of the law, therefore, when taught and preached faithfully, in no way negotiates the gospel of grace or introduces a new form of legalism. Rightly understood, legalism seeks to add something to the grounds of our justification-- the merits of Christ supplemented by our own. Thus, to preach the law as a guide and rule of life for those whose faith is resting in Christ alone for salvation is not legalism. And while it is true that "even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience," we nevertheless "with sincere resolution" are called to "begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God" (Q.114). Q. 115 is key to this discussion:
Q. 115: If in this life no one can keep the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God have them preached so strictly? 

A. First, that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ. Second, that we may be zealous for good deeds and constantly pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that He may more and more renew us after God's image, until after this life we reach the goal of perfection.  
According to the HC, the strict preaching of the law of God is meant to shows us our sin, drive us to Christ, and by the Spirit lead us in the way of growing devotion and obedience to the Lord.  Ursinus lists several "uses of the law" for the regenerate in his commentary on Q.115. 

1.     "The preservation of discipline and outward obedience to the law." As mentioned above, the faithful preaching of the law, along with its threatenings will help to keep God's people "in the faithful discharge of their duty."
2. "A knowledge of sin." Ursinus writes that "the law is to the regenerate a mirror, in which they may see the defects and imperfections of their own nature ... lead them to true humility before God ... continually advance in true conversion [i.e. sanctification] and faith ... and become more and more conformed to God and the divine law."
3. "A rule of divine worship and of a Christian life." Ursinus states "for although the law be also a rule of life to the unregenerate before their conversion, yet it is not to them a rule of worship and gratitude to God, as in the case of the regenerate." 
4. "That the exposition of the law delivered to the church may teach that God is, and what he is."
5. "The voice of the law sounding in the church is an evident testimony, teaching what the true church is, and in what true religion consists."
6. "It admonishes us of the image of God in man ... in the original righteousness which was in Adam, and is again restored in us by Christ."
7. "It is a testimony of eternal life, still future, in which we will perfectly fulfill the law."
8. "In nature perfectly restored and glorified after this life, the law will also have its use." Here Ursinus explains that a "knowledge of the law" will still remain in the elect in heaven that they might demonstrate perfect and personal obedience as did Adam before the fall (All quotes in this section from Ursinus, Commentary, 613-615).   

The HC clearly teaches a "third use" of God's law for the believer, and in no way does this third-use, understood properly, undermine the gospel. Indeed, the Heidelberger heralds a gospel that saves from the terrible wages of sin and saves unto a life of spiritual growth and holiness.    

3. Are Christians meant to be active and earnest in their quest for spiritual growth?

Yes! Rather than encourage passivity ("let go and let God") the HC teaches that Christians are called to actively and earnestly exercise faith in Christ through the means of grace (Q. 65-82; 116); that is, to "diligently frequent the church of God" on the Sabbath in order to "hear [God's Word], to use the sacraments, and publicly to call upon the Lord" (Q. 105). Moreover, the HC exhorts believers "more and more to hate and flee from [sin]" and "live according to the will of God in all good works" (Q. 89-90). By the preservation and indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, God's redeemed children are called to "constantly and strenuously resist our foes till at last we obtain a complete victory" (Q. 127). We are as "members of Christ by faith ... with a free and good conscience" meant to actively "fight against sin and Satan in this life" (Q. 32). In light of the finished work of Christ, God's people are to "earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened, and their lives more holy" (Q.81). There is more to growth in Christ than merely looking back to our justification. 

In contrast to an apathetic view of sin, the HC exhorts believers to take this godly approach: "That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God's commandments never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness" (Q. 113). Therefore, far from teaching a form of passivity in relation to personal holiness, the HC exhorts believer to fight and toil in the strength of the Holy Spirit. 

Final Thoughts

The HC is a marvelous Reformed confession that faithfully teaches the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the new life that is adorned with the fruit of the gospel-- a life of growing, grateful obedience and conformity to Christ through God's Spirit and Word. Therefore, the HC's teaching on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is NOT undermined by its equally robust instruction on growing holiness, obedience, and piety in the Christian life. In fact, the gospel is magnified by the promise that "it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness" (Q. 64).

As we have seen, the biblical concepts of holiness, obedience, piety, progress, duty, and perseverance are viewed by Ursinus and the HC as characteristics of the Christian life. Again, let's be clear: these characteristics or fruit or good works are not an attempt to perfect by the flesh what was begun in the Spirit (Gal. 3:3)? That is often the charge laid at the feet of those who preach and apply the imperatives of Scripture (even when the gospel indicatives are boldly heralded week after week!). No, progressive sanctification is a work of God's free grace whereby through the Spirit's use of the appointed means of grace (i.e. Word, sacraments, and prayer) believers are driven to Christ and thus die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness. Believers are not passive in this work of sanctification. On the contrary, believers toil, struggle, fight, run, and press on in the Spirit's strength and power (cf. Phil. 2:12-13; 3:12-16), and this is motivated by gratitude for the work of Christ as well as other key motivating factors such as God's glory and the threatenings of the law. To downplay or marginalize progressive sanctification in our churches, therefore, is not only to deny our Reformed confession, it is to deny the clear teaching of Scripture.   

Well-intentioned preachers in their zeal to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and avoid legalistic tendencies sometimes unwittingly advance a kind of soft antinomianism by not preaching the third use of the law. By doing this they fail to instruct their congregations on how to live the Christian life. Unlike the HC, they give very little attention to God's law as a guide for believers. There is only a plea to "look to Christ" and all will work out in the end. It's overly simplistic, however, to make "believe in Jesus" or "glory in your justification" the only imperatives when the Bible itself is full of divinely inspired instruction for God's people on how to "walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called" and to "grow up in every way into him" (Eph. 4:1b, 15b).  

Therefore, in light of the biblical doctrine that we find in the HC (and the Westminster Standards), may our churches faithfully trumpet forth the gospel of Jesus Christ and the God-glorifying, Spirit-empowered, Christ-abiding, Word-centered life of progressive sanctification.    

Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is the organizing pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of A Faith Worth Teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism's Enduring Heritage (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013). 

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